Frac sand mines spur rail upgrade

Frac sand mines spur rail upgrade

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Canadian National Railway is fast-tracking a $33 million rail upgrade near Whitehall to accommodate the booming frac sand industry.

The railroad had planned to improve its lines in the area over the next four years but is shortening its timeline to quickly allow for more sand to travel its tracks.

Frac sand mining has exploded in Wisconsin since 2010, when the state had just a handful of permitted mines. There are now more than 100, and western Wisconsin has been ground zero for the boom.

The mines rely on railroads to ship their sand to oil and natural gas extraction sites in the West.

CNI began its track upgrade last year. It plans to replace lines between Wisconsin Rapids and Blair.

The new lines would allow for heavier loads — a single car could haul up to 286,000 pounds of frac sand, said Mark Hallman, CNI’s director of communications and public affairs.

Exact figures on just how much sand is being mined in the area are hard to come by. But Hallman said the sand is one of the railroad’s “principal commodities.”

Mining companies in the area have said the boom still hasn’t peaked. They praised the railroad for making the upgrades now.

“We’re glad they’re proactive and ahead of the industry needs,” said Jason Featherly, the plant manager of Preferred Sands in Blair. “Overall, I think it’s a win for the whole community.”

CNI plans to finish its upgrade by December 2014.

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